Jus’ like Flynn

From tough army boy to stand-up comic? Soldier Soldier star Jerome Flynn is set to surprise all as he plays Tommy Cooper in an award-winning show that arrives in Norwich this week. Sarah Hardy catches up with half of one of our most favourite partnerships.

As the tall, blond one with the broken nose, Jerome Flynn had his army of fans as Paddy Garvey in TV's Soldier Soldier. Along with the equally hunky Robson Green, the pair delighted millions for five years in the 1990s in the realistic series that followed the fortunes of the King's Own Fusiliers.

They even went on, under the auspices of Simon Cowell (who else!) in 1995, to record a hugely-successful single, a syrupy cover of the Isley Brothers' Unchained Melody, that stayed at the top of the charts for two months, sold two million copies and kept the Beatles off the number one spot!

Two albums followed and the duo were hot property but Jerome, or Rome as he sometimes calls himself, took the brave decision to simply dip out of the whole celebrity circus.

“I was having a lot of fun, but I didn't know who I was. Robson and I were starting to get caught up in the pop industry, which is not what either of us wanted.

“We both went on different, but similar, journeys to find ourselves. Robson wanted to become known as a serious, straight actor, and I went on a spiritual journey.”

The cash from two hit albums “more than I ever thought I'd make in my whole career” was enough to fund Jerome's spiritual rebirth. He didn't work for two years, travelled to India, then returned to TV for the BBC series Badger in 2000.

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Here he played Det Con Tom McCabe, a police wildlife liaison officer, in a gentle series, filmed in Northumberland, which appealed to his love of the countryside and the natural world.

Following that he took more time off. “The cash gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. I'm very fortunate. I know people who have become victims of the profession and I didn't want that to happen. I'm now in a place where I value work, but it's integrated with my life. Acting doesn't take me away from myself.”

Now he's back, and doing what he describes as his dream job – playing Tommy Cooper in Jus' Like That, an award-winning show combining the much-loved comic's jokes, magic and a few anecdotes.

It is one of the roles he wanted to play, rather than had to, indeed he says he has dreamed of portraying Cooper since his death 20 years ago.

“I'm very lucky. I feel Tommy has been occupying my subconscious for years, I feel a definite affinity with him.

“I didn't really understand his humour as a child, but after he died someone gave me a tape of him and I fell in love with him really. He was warm and vulnerable.”

The show uses 90 minutes of Cooper's actual material. Between scenes he is seen preparing for the show backstage, drinking and relating anecdotes. “It's not an impersonation. I wouldn't be doing it if it was just that.

“The reason I said I would act him was that feeling of being taken over by a character – finding something in yourself that helps the character light up and being swept away with it. Hopefully it captures Tommy's spirit, that's more important.”

Jerome, who admits to being a perfectionist, met Tommy's wife, Dove, before she died and performed the show in front of the couple's daughter. “She enjoyed it but there were also a few tears there, which is understandable – it must have been strange for her. We were really keen to make the play something the family approved of.”

And then there are the gags. “So I got home, and the phone was ringing, I picked it up, and said 'Who's speaking please?' And a voice said 'You are'.”

They may be silly (and very old) but you can't help laughing.

“They're not blue, they're not cynical,” says Jerome. “They're not bringing anyone down. There's a purity about him. He wasn't nasty.”

No matter what age you are, Jerome believes Tommy Cooper's humour is timeless: “He stood up there and said 'You don't have to be perfect; you don't have to look great in this world; you don't have to get everything right'.

“We're always being told you have to look perfect and get everything right – especially for the British: we get so uptight. Tommy was a wonderful release in our subconscious.”

Imitating Cooper's West Country burr, mannerisms and haphazard style of delivery presented the actor with a challenge.

The run-up to opening night was a worry. He says: “You've practised and practised, but until you get out there you don't know how it will be received. Luckily, there was this immediate warmth from the audience, which was great.”

Jerome, now aged 41, has been involved with the show for a couple of years, explaining: “We had a short three-date tour last year and then three or four months in the West End. Then a year off and we've been back on a fairly major tour for four months, until just before Christmas.

“But we might go into the West End for Christmas and there's talk of another tour next year, too.”

Jerome had no qualms about signing up for the show or making such a commitment. “I haven't thought much further than this. But I do want to do some writing, there's a film I'm working on,” he says.

He always knew that he wanted to act. As a 15-year-old schoolboy in Kent, he appeared in Charley's Aunt and was hooked. He also comes from an acting family. His father, Eric Flynn, is perhaps best known for his part in the '70s series Ivanhoe, while his brother, Daniel, is also an actor.

He studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama, leaving in 1984, and worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company before moving into television. Indeed, he showed an early independence of thought by turning down a role in London's Burning for more serious theatrical work.

But what of his great friendship with Robson? Well, it continues. “He came to see the show as Tommy was a hero to him, too. We used to spend hours together just being Tommy Cooper, doing his voice, his gags, the whole act, really. Even when we on the phone, we'd have these entire conversations with us both as Tommy Cooper. Mad, really!”

And interestingly, he doesn't rule out working with him again. Not musically, if you're worried (even Jerome has admitted that his hits were not exactly to his taste).

“But if a script came in that appealed to us both, then who knows!” he says.

Away from work, Jerome loves to spend time in Wales, where he has a seven-bedroom farm on the coast in Pembrokeshire. “I bought it some time ago for my father to renovate. I'm based in London at the moment but I do wonder if I'll end up in Wales. I'd like to open a healing centre there one day,” he says. “To give people who don't normally have the chance to visit such places an opportunity.”

Jerome adds: “I'm a nature boy at heart, I just love being outdoors, by the sea, going swimming, that's how I relax. Being with friends, with my family.”

Speaking of friends, Jerome somehow manages to keep his private life just that. As you'd imagine, he doesn't do the glossy magazine circuit or the chatshow route. Rumour has it that he's free. Certainly, he split from his long-term girlfriend, dancer Anna Jacobs, a couple of years ago, so you never know, there's hope for all his fans!

Jerome may be a bit more rugged than you remember in Soldier Soldier but it was a good 10 years or so ago and there's certainly something enduringly appealing about him. Expect, if he wishes, to see him back on our screens soon – maybe even with his North-East friend.

t Jus' Like That! opens at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, on Monday September 20 and runs until Saturday September 25. Tickets are from £4. More details on 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk